I’m honored and gratified to be mentioned, by name and at length, in AHA President Anthony Grafton’s February 2011 Perspectives column, A Discussion Continues. (The column, unfortunately, is behind a subscription wall.) In his column, Grafton provides a synopsis of my and Historiann’s comments on the recent and continuing attacks on the historical profession. Grafton also responds at length to complaints about the adjunctification of the historical profession, among others. Here’s part of what he has to say:
Ann Little and Jeremy Young, the bloggers who responded at length, pointed out, in different ways, that my title was imprecise: “it is not history, but historians, who are under attack.” They’re absolutely right. Americans love history. Tens of thousands of them reenact battles, hundreds of thousands visit historical sites and exhibits, and a million a week on average watch the History Channel. Thousands of them buy the works of history that appear on best-seller lists. From Tea Partiers to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s readers debating the Civil War, they’re passionate about the past. What they don’t love, to the same extent, are professional historians.
Many believe that professional historians are no better than, or indeed worse than, amateurs (a traditional American view that often encompasses experts in other fields, from medicine to climate). Some find that professionals are too politically correct to see the past as it really was. Many, especially journalists, insist that professionals just can’t write.
The biggest problem, though, is rooted in the core of our practices. Professional historians, Little argues, “are, by nature, splitters rather than lumpers. We aren’t united by a methodology or single set of disciplinary practices, and our writing and teaching more often than not seeks not to impose order on a given topic but rather to provide nuance and complexity. This is intellectually satisfying, but it sure makes it difficult for us to explain to the general public what we do and why it’s important that professionally trained historians do it rather than Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck.”
But as Little and Young also point out, plenty of historians write very well. They could make a public case for serious, responsible history that weighs the sources and delivers qualified verdicts. The question is how to persuade more of them to reach out to the public, both in traditional media and on blogs and other digital formats. Young makes a striking suggestion: the AHA should “encourage consideration of outreach as a fourth evaluative criterion, in addition to teaching, research, and service. Outreach would be a comprehensive category that would include the production of written ephemera, appearance as a TV talking head, production of particularly readable historical manuscripts, publication of books through popular presses, service in public history, and other related endeavors.”
In recent years, the AHA has consistently encouraged professors of history to work with public historians. Young’s less modest proposal might help to fix this kind of collaboration, as well as collaboration with the media, more firmly in the structure of the profession. (For discussion: Professors often see administrators as the enemy. My own impression is that most administrators would welcome a stronger emphasis on outreach, while some departments would oppose it as unprofessional.)
As you can see, Grafton is a class act, and I applaud him for thinking through these issues in a supple and nuanced way. I don’t have any disagreements to speak of with his essay; I look forward to seeing where he takes the discussion from here.
Finally, I’d like to add a clarification to my original comments about outreach: while I believe strongly that outreach should become one possible route to tenure and promotion, it’s not a route I personally intend to take. My own interests in the profession lie in the more traditional arenas of research and teaching. My comments are intended to suggest a direction for the profession as a whole — one that might well benefit colleagues of mine, as well as the reception of professional historians among the general public — but not to pave the way for my own outreach-based claims. This isn’t a response to Grafton’s column so much as a clarification I felt was needed since my words on the subject are gaining wider circulation.